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Soaking in Hot Springs

Every family has one—that quirky relative who adds a touch of eccentricity to the family reunion. For the Mid-South, that black sheep is the town of Hot Springs, Arkansas. With its historic bathhouses, horse racing, crystal farms, art galleries, mobster history and general live-and-let-live attitude, this is where the Bible Belt comes to let its hair down.

Hot Springs (pop. 40,000) also has the claim to fame of being the boyhood home of former President Bill Clinton. Most people know that Bubba was born in a place called Hope, 80 miles to the south, but he spent his formative years in this progressive spa town, graduating from Hot Springs High School, just a stone’s throw from a stretch of Central Avenue known as Bathhouse Row.

People have been taking the waters in Hot Springs for centuries. Native Americans believed the geothermal springs (with an average temperature of 143 degrees) had healing properties. In 1832, Congress acted to protect the springs as a place for future generations to enjoy. In the 19th and 20th centuries, visitors from across the country came to the Hot Springs bathhouses, drawn by tales of the water’s restorative properties. Everyone from FDR to Babe Ruth to Andrew Carnegie soaked here. Today, there are still plenty of opportunities for visitors to do the same at the bathhouses on Bathhouse Row.

Buckstaff Bathhouse is a curious place. The hours alone are strange (7 a.m.–11:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.–3 p.m.), and a treatment here is like stepping back in time. The standard package includes a half-hour soak in an oversize old-school tub filled with mineral water straight from the ground, a Sitz bath (good for hemorrhoids, they say), and some time in a steam room, followed by hot packs (towels soaked in spring water) and a massage.

Those who don’t want the anachronistic feeling of taking a bath in years gone by should head to the recently remodeled Quapaw Baths, a few doors down. Here, you can enjoy everything a modern spa has to offer—aromatherapy, hot stone massages, body polishes, facials—plus a soak in that same hot mineral water in a huge communal bath.

To learn more about the area, visit the former Fordyce Bathhouse, which now serves as the visitor center for Hot Springs National Park, a one-of-a-kind mix of a national park within a small city surrounded by low mountains. The 1915 bathhouse was once considered the prime spa among its peers. Once you see the ornate lounges, full gymnasium, beauty parlor, massage rooms, steam cabinets and the intricate equipment used to pump water from the exposed spring in the basement, you’ll understand why. All of the bathhouse infrastructure has been restored to its original state for museumgoers (but it’s for viewing only). There’s also an interesting exhibit about African Americans and the Hot Springs bathhouses, including a section about black-owned, segregated spas of the early 1900s.

At the end of Bathhouse Row sits the august Arlington Hotel. This property, which dates back to 1875, was a favorite hideaway for Al Capone (who always booked room 442) and other gangsters who frequented the city in the 1920s and 30s. Treatments at the spa here are similar to those in other places, plus seaweed or mud body wraps.

Perhaps the most famous lunch place here is McClard’s, a barbecue joint west of downtown. President Clinton’s autographed pictures hang on the walls—it’s rumored that he had orders overnighted to the White House. The place itself is no secret: Be prepared to wait for a table. But the hubcap-sized sandwiches and tamales are worth it. Equally good BBQ can be had at Whole Hog Café, where you can douse your enormous pulled-pork sandwich with one of six sauces set on the table, from tomato-based to molasses.

While there’s a lot of Tex-Mex food to be found, there’s also authentic south-of-the-border fare, especially at the old standby, La Hacienda. Order queso fundido, a mix of cheese, chorizo and jalapeños that comes to the table bubbling in a molcajete (a stone cauldron) with fresh flour tortillas.

No visit to Arkansas would be complete without a down-home meal of fried catfish with all the fixins. You’ll find this Southern treat in plenty of places, but one of the best in town is Bubba’s Catfish-2-Go, a roadside stand with covered picnic tables out front. A plate of crispy, cornmeal-crusted Mississippi farm-aised catfish comes with crunchy hush puppies, creamy coleslaw and sliced raw onion. Wash it all down with the house wine of the South—strong, ridiculously sweet iced tea.

If you’re on a pizza kick, stop by Rocky’s Corner Pizza for one of the best deep-dish pies outside Chicago. Or try Rod’s Pizza Cellar, an Arkansas institution. Order a fully loaded Godfather (pepperoni, Canadian bacon, onions, peppers, olives and sausage) to feed a hungry crowd.

Gambling has a long history in Hot Springs. When the town was a haven for Capone and his contemporaries, including Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano, it was full of wild nightclubs serving bootleg booze and illegal gambling. Today, all that’s left of this hedonistic past is the tame Oaklawn Horse Racing Track. Even if you don’t know a yearling from a ridgling, go for the experience. And while you’re there, get a corned beef sandwich; it could be the best in the universe.

For a great souvenir, pick up some bars of handmade soap at Bathhouse Soap, right on Bathhouse Row. There’s a soap to suit every taste, whether you’re into honeysuckle, seaweed or even brownie batter. Just down the street, in the former Ozark Bathhouse, the Museum of Contemporary Art showcases works from around the world in a 14,000- square-foot space.

Venture outside town to mine for crystals, believed by many New Agers to possess healing properties and different energies. Dig for your own at Ron Coleman Mining, 10 miles north, in Jessieville. Before you go, read up on crystals (as well as astrology, dreams and angels) at the town’s Golden Leaves Bookstore.

A fun spot just west of downtown is the Culinary District, a huge kitchen-supply and food store in a restored loft-like space. Besides everything a cook could want, you can buy such Arkansas-made products as salsas, honey, barbecue sauces and even the excellent Microplane food graters, which are made in nearby Russellville. The chic patio behind the store is used for weekend wine and cheese tastings and other events.

Believe what you want about the healing properties of the water (or the crystals) in Hot Springs. One thing that’s certain is the delicious taste of the spring water. There are fountains at the end of Bathhouse Row where you can fill up your own jugs, but the classic spot for sampling this elixir is at the headquarters of Mountain Valley Water, where you can also learn about the history of the springs and buy souvenirs. You may have seen bottles of the water in supermarkets; the Clintons put it on the map when they served it at White House dinners. Whether you want to soak in it, learn about it or drink it, in Hot Springs, water reigns supreme.

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.